By Matt Youmans
VSiN senior editor
Not only is he a good coach, Eric Musselman is great at celebrating championships. No coach in college basketball puts on a show quite like him.
Moments after Nevada won the Mountain West regular-season title Saturday, Musselman ripped off his shirt and did a bare-chested strut around the court in Reno. It was reminiscent of his emotional celebration a year ago, when the Wolf Pack won the College Basketball Invitational. He made it seem they had just taken the NBA Finals in Game 7.
Musselman has accomplished a lot in two seasons, but he’s not getting Nevada into the NCAA Tournament unless it wins the conference tournament this week in Las Vegas.
“In my opinion, the Mountain West gets one team in. I feel confident in that,” VSiN oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo said.
It would be stunning if the Mountain West got in more than one team. Nevada (25-6) is the only team with any semblance of an at-large argument. The Wolf Pack sit a solid 35th in the Ratings Percentage Index and 57th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Still, the NCAA selection committee will not be blown away by a resume that shows so-called quality victories over Iona, Oakland, Oregon State and Washington.
The Mountain West’s traditional powers are weak. New Mexico is the No. 5 seed, San Diego State is No. 6 and UNLV is No. 11. The Rebels, stuck with 20 losses, face the embarrassment of being the league’s lowest seed in a tournament staged at the Thomas & Mack Center.
According to odds posted at the Westgate sports book, Nevada is the favorite at 5-4 odds, followed by Colorado State (4-1), Boise State (5-1), San Diego State (5-1), Fresno State (6-1) and New Mexico (8-1). UNLV is a 60-1 shot.
The Wolf Pack attack with four double-figure scorers, led by senior guard Marcus Marshall at 19.7 points per game. Cameron Oliver, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, is a legit NBA prospect who averages 15.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. But on any given day, Jordan Caroline or D.J. Fenner could take over a game, too.
Nevada has won and covered six straight games, all as a favorite. Oliver was dominant Saturday, totaling 29 points and 17 rebounds in an 85-72 victory over Colorado State.
The Wolf Pack pulled off one of the season’s most memorable comebacks on Jan. 7, storming back from 25 points down in the second half to stun the Lobos 105-104 in overtime in Albuquerque. That miracle triggered another Musselman celebration.
“Nevada is the most talented team and is playing exceptional basketball right now,” Magliulo said. “It’s a solid and well-coached team. It’s a team in good current form, which is obviously critical. I think Nevada can win a game in the NCAA Tournament.”
SCOUTING THE MOUNTAIN WEST TOURNAMENT
Record: 25-6, 14-4
Player to watch: Cameron Oliver. After a standout freshman year, Oliver considered leaving for the NBA. He’s currently considered a late first or early second-round pick. He has a pro body and explosiveness around the rim. Plus, he’s shooting 38.4 percent from 3-point range.
Fast facts: Marcus Marshall, a transfer from Missouri State, is the third player in Mountain West history to top 100 made 3-pointers in a season. He has 106 in 31 games. … Jordan Caroline, a 6-7 sophomore, is the son of Simeon Rice, who played 12 years in the NFL. … Eric Musselman is a former NBA head coach for Golden State (2002-2004) and Sacramento (2006-07).
Prediction: The Wolf Pack will be tough to beat behind the talented foursome of Oliver, Caroline, Marshall and senior guard D.J. Fenner. Nevada is a good bet at odds as high as 9-5 (South Point) to win the tournament. If that happens, Musselman’s celebration will be worth watching.
2) COLORADO STATE
Record: 21-10, 13-5
Player to watch: Gian Clavell. The senior guard leads the team in scoring (19.5). He plays with an edge and is fearless when it comes to taking big shots under pressure.
Fast facts: The Rams went 5-2 in league games decided by five points or fewer. … Emmanuel Omogbo, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, averages a double-double (14.1 points, 10.7 rebounds).
Prediction: Colorado State faces a tough opener by getting the Air Force-Wyoming winner on Thursday. The Rams beat the Cowboys twice in February by scores of 78-73 and 78-76. Larry Eustachy can coach this team to the title game, but if Nevada is the opponent, it will be more frustration for Eustachy.
3) BOISE STATE
Record: 19-10, 12-6
Player to watch: Chandler Hutchison. The 6-7 junior guard is an impressive athlete who averages 17.2 points and 8.0 rebounds while playing inside and out. He needs to be the best player in the tournament for the Broncos to win it.
Fast facts: Boise State made 20 of 34 3-pointers in a 98-70 blowout of Air Force on Saturday. … The Broncos picked up a high-quality nonconference win by beating Southern Methodist in November.
Prediction: The reward for earning the No. 3 seed? The Broncos will play the San Diego State-UNLV winner on Thursday. That means they will play the Aztecs, who never go out easily in this tournament. Boise State might get sent home early.
4) FRESNO STATE
Record: 19-11, 11-7
Player to watch: Deshon Taylor. In victories over Boise State and UNLV last week, the sophomore guard averaged 22.5 points.
Fast facts: The Bulldogs are 24-12 in Mountain West regular-season play the past two seasons. … Fresno State won this tournament last year and made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001.
Prediction: With five straight wins and covers, including upsets at San Diego State and Boise State, the Bulldogs are rolling into Las Vegas. Fresno State opens with a coin-flip game against New Mexico on Thursday. Rodney Terry is a bet-on coach, but realistically he’s a long shot to cut down the nets in back-to-back years.
5) NEW MEXICO
Record: 17-13, 10-8
Player to watch: Elijah Brown. If the junior guard gets hot, he could carry the Lobos a long way. He had a 41-point game against Fresno State in 2016. After one season at Butler, Brown transferred and averaged 21.7 points in his first season for New Mexico. His scoring average has dipped to 18.9 this season.
Fast facts: The Lobos swept San Diego State, but they also suffered some bizarre losses, including a 71-66 setback against UNLV in Albuquerque. … Craig Neal won 27 games in his first season as New Mexico coach, but he has won only 17 in each of the past two seasons.
Prediction: The recent return of senior forward Tim Williams is a reason for optimism, but Neal is not one of the league’s best coaches, and his team is probably too erratic to win three games in three days.
6) SAN DIEGO STATE
Record: 17-13, 9-9
Player to watch: Malik Pope. A 6-10 junior forward with NBA-type talent, Pope is a high riser but an underachiever. He’s an example for why the Aztecs have had a disappointing season. But if he comes to play this week, don’t count out this team.
Fast facts: San Diego State has played for the tournament title in seven of the past eight seasons (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016). … The Aztecs have 10 consecutive victories over UNLV. … Steve Fisher owns 27 career wins against the Rebels, the most among active coaches.
Prediction: The Aztecs have been written off by most, but Fisher’s team is dangerous because of its talent and history in this tournament. San Diego State, a 9½-point favorite over UNLV on Wednesday, should not have to sweat its opening game.
Record: 18-13, 8-10
Player to watch: Justin James. The Cowboys open against Air Force, an opponent James lit up for 26 points and seven assists a month ago. The 6-7 sophomore guard appears to be a rising star in the league. He leads the team in scoring (15.5).
Fast fact: Wyoming is 1-0 in quadruple overtime games this season. The Cowboys held off Fresno State 102-100 on Feb. 8 in the second four-overtime game in Mountain West history.
Prediction: Winning two games this week is not out of the question for the Cowboys, who are 6-point favorites over the Falcons on Wednesday. Up next would be Colorado State, a team Wyoming has twice taken to the wire.
8) UTAH STATE
Record: 13-16, 7-11
Player to watch: Jalen Moore. The senior forward might be the league’s most underrated player. Moore is listed at 6-9 but he’s a 7-footer if his high-rise hairdo is included. He leads the team in scoring (16.6) and rebounding (5.6) and shoots 42 percent from 3-point range.
Fast fact: The Aggies hit the road and beat San Jose State, their first-round opponent, 81-75 on Feb. 22.
Prediction: Utah State is a favorite at the Thomas & Mack Center for the second time in eight days. The Aggies were upset 66-59 by UNLV on March 1. It would not be much of a surprise if they fall again as 4½-point favorites against the Spartans.
9) SAN JOSE STATE
Record: 14-15, 7-11
Player to watch: Brandon Clarke. The 6-8 sophomore forward leads the team in scoring (17.9), rebounding (8.7) and blocks (2.6). He’s another future star in the conference, if he stays in San Jose.
Fast fact: In Dave Wojcik’s first three seasons as coach, the Spartans won a total of 18 games.
Prediction: Clarke will need to outplay Moore, the Aggies’ star senior, for the Spartans to advance. But the winner will play Nevada on Thursday, so there will be no Cinderella run.
10) AIR FORCE
Record: 11-20, 4-14
Player to watch: Hayden Graham. On a hopeless team, the 6-5 senior forward goes overlooked. But Graham has a strong all-around game and averages 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds. He had 19 points and 11 rebounds in an 81-58 victory over UNLV on Feb. 22.
Fast fact: Air Force is 3-17 in 17 appearances in the Mountain West tournament. The Falcons are 3-2 in the opening round and 0-15 in the quarterfinals.
Prediction: The Falcons are capable of winning one game, but betting your paycheck on it is not advised.
Record: 11-20, 4-14
Player to watch: Jovan Mooring. He’s the perfect point guard for the Rebels’ playground offense because he dribbles around aimlessly and throws up wild shots. But he does hit some big shots, so give him credit for that. Mooring leads the team in scoring (12.4), assists (4.0) and turnovers (2.5).
Fast facts: The Rebels rank 267th in the nation in scoring (69.4) and 258th in scoring defense (75.6). … Twenty losses is a program record for UNLV, which is 1-10 straight up and 2-8-1 ATS in its past 11 games.
Prediction: Pain. UNLV is a 9½-point underdog to San Diego State, which has won 10 straight in the series. It’s obvious coach Marvin Menzies needs to start winning some recruiting battles.